I am sure I have confused many people this past year. “Suddenly” I have started talking about having a brain injury. It must seem like it is absolutely out of the blue. In fact, a lot of people never knew I had had accidents. And even when I did talk about them I spoke in past tense; as if it they were something that had happened but that I was “over it” now.
I think it must be especially confusing to the people who have come to know me in the last six years. (I moved from Colorado to Washington state in 2003.) Though there are people here who have known me since I was in my early 20’s, they had not seen me for over 15 years and we all have changed a lot.
So why is this coming to terms with the fact that I have a brain injury “all of the sudden”?
Simply put: I have been in denial. Not intentionally. Denial is just something the brain does. And it is good at doing it. Denial essentially “comes with the plumbing” of a brain injury.
And, I had accidentally created a “perfect storm” or at least “perfect weather conditions” to allow denial to blow through my life virtually unbridled and undetected. I am single and live alone so there was no housemate or life partner to observe the problems; my family is far away and busy with their own lives and children; and I had moved to a place where no one knew me well pre-accident #1.
Denial is not something that is done with any consciousness. When I look back at those years my sense is of being lost in a sea of confusion with no understanding of how I got there or why swimming was not working. I used all my energy to keep afloat.
The brain does not like for anything to be wrong. It “makes sense” even when things don’t make sense. It provides excuses or rationalizations. That is why brain injuries are so weird. I mean when I broke my wrist, my wrist did not get up off the pavement and try to function normally. It did not pretend it wasn’t broken. It didn’t go into denial. My wrist didn’t talk back. The brain does.
The Brain Injury Resource Center explains denial this way:
We all have a natural inclination to rearrange our experiences to fit a positive image of ourselves. This manipulation allows us to preserve our personal integrity, and makes us feel secure. It goes on undetected because it takes place in the private corners of your mind.
When the demands of life require capabilities that seem to exceed our resources, when we feel the threat of loss and exposure, we experience anxiety. In an effort to avoid the pain of anxiety, we practice the deceptive art of denial.
Denial is … an attempt to put distance between ourselves and our experience, and protect ourselves from the threat of danger. In its many forms, denial acts like a pain reliever. The practice of denial is an attempt to ease the discomfort of anxiety by a subtle and ingenious twist of attention.3
In hindsight it blows me away that I did not realize that something was wrong. Well, I did realize something was wrong but instead of coming to a full stop and looking at the situation objectively I did two main things. First, I tend to be hard on myself so for five years I have been blaming myself for my problems; telling myself that I just had to “pull up on my bootstraps”, that I wasn’t working at things hard enough.
Faced with this adversity my brain resorted to the easiest response, the course it knew best. It rushed along deeply grooved tracts laid down in childhood. I have ADD and have had it my whole life. However back when I was a child ADD had not been identified. Per the wisdom of the day I grew up being told that I “wasn’t trying hard enough”, that I “was being lazy”, and many more variations on the same theme. In short, since ADD was not understood, the wisdom of the day was to blame the child. I can still remember how confused I was by it all because I felt I was trying very hard to be a good student yet I was being told the opposite. Everyone was telling me the fault was in me so I eventually believed them and discounted my own experience.
Secondly, I tried to appear like I was keeping it together. I had just moved back to Washington. I didn’t know people here and didn’t want to appear like I was a basket case. I didn’t (and still don”t) know this “new me” so I tried to be the old one. It was the only thing I knew to do.
Even now, even as I am in the middle of trying to deal with the head injury I still have to work at staying present and not slipping into mild denial tricks.
- Healthy Dose of Denial is by Dave Carpenter and is used with permission.
- Denial’s Ugly Head an article on the Brain Injury Resource Center website.